St Patrick would have been astounded. The same geological fault that produced Slemish Mountain where our patron saint once cared for his flocks looks set to provide cheap heat for the entire town of Ballymena.
The Romans will be wondering why it took us so long to start exploiting geothermal energy — after all, the English city of Bath is founded round the Roman baths that used naturally occurring hot water.
But thanks to a £500,000 windfall, Ballymena Borough Council is on course to become the first local town whose homes are heated with hot water from beneath the Earth’s crust — and insists that many other communities living on top of similar geothermal hotspots could follow suit.
The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has just awarded the town funding for |a pilot scheme that would see public buildings and 26 Housing Executive homes heated by a district heating scheme powered by burning woodchip.
The next step will be to add geothermal energy into the mix as part of the main district heating scheme, tapping into the same geological fault that once formed the volcano of Slemish millions of years ago.
Clive Kyle, director of development, leisure and cultural affairs with Ballymena Council, said: “Geothermal energy has been used ever since man had any understanding of what it was, but it wasn’t developed to the extent it should have been until the past 50 years or so.
“This will be tapping into a fissure along what is known as the Lough Neagh Basin, a geothermal reservoir. We won’t be using the water from beneath the ground itself — we will be using the heat from the water. We will be drilling a hole into the ground and bringing up the water and passing it through a heat exchange before putting it back down into the ground where it came from.
“In the process we will be drawing heat off it to heat water. It’s similar to what you have in your house where the hot water doesn’t mix with the water going through the radiators.”
This hot water would then be piped round the town through a network of pipes, passing through a heat exchanger in each house to provide cheap heat.
“There are a number of sites that the council is looking at to base the district heating system — one of the ones we are looking at is the Ecos Centre,” Mr Kyle said.
“But all you would see above the ground is something the size of a domestic garage. All the pipework is below the ground and all you have above ground is a heat exchanger which brings heat from underground in water, a monitoring station and a few pumps. There will be a network of pipes going round the town and bringing a connection into each house.”
The network will be used to heat public buildings and Housing Executive homes but could potentially heat every house in the town, should owners choose to ditch the boiler and invest in the heat exchanger.
“The probability is that it would be a lot lower cost for individuals than gas, oil or coal. There would be very low running costs,” Mr Kyle said.